At the age of 36, I decided to get a master’s degree in English. I have elsewhere–well, everywhere, including in the introductory lecture of nearly every class I teach–suggested that I was standing in a bookstore, staring at the American literature selection, when I made the sudden, if inward, proclamation: “I want to be an English teacher when I grow up.”
That’s not exactly what happened, though. I changed the name and location of the bookstore (it was really Wellington’s Books in Cary, North Carolina, not the Intimate in Chapel Hill) because they fit the story better, and I omitted the context. My Romanian friend, Marie Bugariu, was becoming a citizen of the United States. She and I had spent at least part of most conversations bemoaning the narrow and even boorish insularity of American culture. Having that instinct without experience, I was proud to be included in Marie’s eurocentric entourage.
However, my 1950s upbringing by members of the “greatest generation” would not allow entirely for such glib snobbery (or was it self-loathing?). I therefore decided to celebrate the Americanization of Marie with the gift of American culture. So I was standing in Wellington’s, looking at row on row of books by not-so-boorish Americans, when I had my not-exactly epiphany. I chose for my friend–and still might choose in similar circumstances–The Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and (from the nearby CD counter) Concerto in F by George Gershwin. But that choice is probably tangential to the story. What happened as I scanned the shelves was simply this: I realized with sudden clarity, “This is what I love.” Nothing more. I did not make pronouncements about my future beyond a hesitant decision to begin a master’s program in English that fall.
It was something that happened that same fall that caused me to be so careful about using too loosely the word epiphany. I took a class rather deceptively called “Modern British and American Fiction.” It was actually a class on Lawrence and Joyce, which I would never have signed up for had I known that a large portion of the course would be spent reading Ulysses, an intimidating syllabus for a first-semester novice in the English department. However, iconoclastic Joyce scholar Weldon Thornton suggested that we read Ulysses as a novel and then argued that not only Ulysses, but all Joyce’s oeuvre, represents a “rejection of valuational and stylistic relativism” and a subversion of the”modernistic dualisms” of “inner and outer, individual and cultural, conscious and unconscious” (Voices and Values in Joyce’s “Ulysses” 61). That is, for us, his eager acolytes, Thornton turned the rest of Joyce scholarship on its head and taught Joyce as a philosophical opponent of modernism.
In doing so, he also questioned Joyce’s mature understanding of the epiphanies to which he gave so much attention in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Specifically, Thornton argued that as Joyce’s style matured, he understood that momentary flashes of clarity could not be the foundation of a world view nor even of a work of literature. So, especially as one also immersed in the Anglican theology of the Epiphany, I am careful not to call my experiences of sudden clarity and understanding epiphanies.
However, I would like to share two experiences in my life (in addition to the one above) when I experienced the sense of “thisness” (haecceity)–or perhaps it was “whatness” (quiddity); I am not a philosopher–that characterizes the Joycean epiphany.
The first, less obvious happened sometime in the 1974-1975 academic year, fall or early spring, I suspect, because the window of our dorm room was open. My roommate, Judy, and I had decided that we wanted to cook breakfast that Sunday morning. We had no refrigerator, so we went to the Market Spot and bought bacon and eggs, nothing more. I had a hotplate and a small skillet, and I fried the bacon; we both liked it crispy. Then each of us made eggs the way we liked them–mine over easy, Judy’s with a hard yolk. The aroma of bacon fat, the cool Tucson breeze, and the taste and texture of perfect eggs have remained in my mind all these years. Only a week later, though, when we tried again with sausage, did we realize that that was a memory we could never recreate–a memory of being 21 and smart and alive to experience as we would never be again.
The more significant of those experiences occurred in the mid-afternoon of February 16, 1975. I had spent several hours in the library, combing through US census records in the “locked cage” of the library, that exclusive place reserved for those with pretensions to serious scholarship such as myself. Therefore, I did not hear the several announcements that Vicki Bozzola should report to the circulation desk. I arrived back at the dorm and went to my room, still unaware. And then Emily knocked on my door. When I said “come in,” she collapsed into the room and cried out, “Vicki, she died!” It was her mother. She had been hospitalized for several days at the university medical center after a severe stroke, having never regained consciousness.
Emily’s relationship with her mother, whom she called Mommy, was the envy of my adolescence. They talked. They read books together. They were best friends. The one time I visited the hospital, Emily was testing the post-stroke cognitive abilities of the comatose patient. Emily held her mother’s hand and asked, “Who wrote Vanity Fair?” She named several authors, and when she got to Thackeray, she swore that her mother squeezed her hand. It was a confirmation I believed because I knew the strength of their ties to one another.
And then she was gone–and with her, the only mother-daughter bond I had ever experienced, the secret of cooking sweetbreads, and the rich vocabulary through which I learned so many new words. Emily and I sat on my built-in bed on the left side of the room. Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto was playing on the record player. February qualifies as early spring in Tucson, and the fragrance of orange blossoms flitted through the open window. The fierce desert wind bent the palm trees almost double. On the built-in table/desk in front of us was a round pan, probably filched from a local pizza parlor, and on that pan was a pyramid of oranges. For me, those big, thick-skinned navel oranges from California are still the juiciest and the sweetest. But on that day, that pile of oranges became for me the essence of what it is to be an orange. I am not sure I know what that means, and I am not sure if it is thisness or whatness, but I felt it strongly; I knew it. And the knowledge of orangeness–coupled, probably, with the gushing romanticism of Rachmaninoff–sanctified the vignette of two weeping girls on the cusp of adulthood, arms around each other’s shoulders.
Perhaps I can even call it an epiphany because for a surprising and fleeting moment, we understood not only oranges, but love and death and what it means to be–and have–a friend.